Author Archives: Oliver Shell

About Oliver Shell

Dr. Oliver Shell received a Ph.D. in Art History at the University of Pennsylvania, in 1998. He came to The Baltimore Museum of Art in 2003, as the Samuel H. Kress Curatorial Fellow, and conducted research on the sculpture of Henri Matisse. This work led to the 2007 BMA exhibition Matisse Painter as Sculpture, with venues at the Dallas Museum of Art and the Nasher Sculpture Center. Since 2007, as Associate Curator of European Painting and Sculpture, Shell has organized exhibitions including: The Persistent Figure in Modern Sculpture, 2006/2007; Rodin Expression and Influence, 2007; A Circus Family: Picasso to Léger, 2009; and Advancing Abstraction in Modern Sculpture, 2010/2011, and German Expressionism: A Revolutionary Spirit, January to September 2014.

An eye for detail: Walking through Imagining Home with Associate Curator Oliver Shell

Alfred Stieglitz. The Steerage. From the journal "291" (Nos. 7-8, September-October 1915). 1907, published 1915. Photogravure, Sheet: 465 x 318 mm. (18 5/16 x 12 1/2 in.), Image: 333 x 264 mm. (13 1/8 x 10 3/8 in.) The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Cary Ross, BMA 1988.565

Alfred Stieglitz. The Steerage. From the journal “291” (Nos. 7-8, September-October 1915). 1907, published 1915.
Photogravure, Sheet: 465 x 318 mm. (18 5/16 x 12 1/2 in.), Image: 333 x 264 mm. (13 1/8 x 10 3/8 in.)
The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of Cary Ross, BMA 1988.565

Images contain details that can be enlightening or senseless, or whose import may be lost due the passage of time.  In an exhibition like Imagining Home with so many big themes, I find myself fixated by particulars. The passengers in Alfred Stieglitz’s classic photograph The Steerage almost universally wear hats or head gear. The women wear head scarves while among the men we see workers caps, fancy bowler hats, and one very prominent straw boater. What did it mean to wear a straw boater or bowler hat while traveling in steerage in 1907? Was there any difference? The larger point may be that in this era nobody left his or her home without some form of head covering–a practice that died out somewhere in the mid-20th century. My grandmother still wore a hat when she went to town. I do not! Lost rituals of propriety create a separation between their world and ours.

Marguerite Gérard. Motherhood. c. 1795-1800 Oil on wood panel, 24 x 20 in. (61.0 x 50.8 cm.) The Baltimore Museum of Art: Bequest of Elise Agnus Daingerfield, BMA 1944.102

Marguerite Gérard. Motherhood. c. 1795-1800. Oil on wood panel, 24 x 20 in. (61.0 x 50.8 cm.)
The Baltimore Museum of Art: Bequest of Elise Agnus Daingerfield, BMA 1944.102

Marguerite Gérard. Motherhood (detail). c. 1795-1800 Oil on wood panel, 24 x 20 in. (61.0 x 50.8 cm.) The Baltimore Museum of Art: Bequest of Elise Agnus Daingerfield, BMA 1944.102

The oil lamp depicted in Marguerite Gerard’s Motherhood is among the most exquisitely complex light fixtures that I have ever seen. Symbolically, this may be fitting for a work produced in the ‘age of enlightenment.’ Unfortunately, this lamp sheds little light onto the purpose of some of the other props in this room.  For instance, what are we to make of the large panel leaning against the wall, behind the mother? It depicts three rows of hand-written yet indecipherable words. My sense is that it would have been a recognizable object in its day, otherwise why include it? Perhaps it may serve some pedagogical function in the child’s upbringing—perhaps an aid to reading? The child seems too young for such instruction, and yet, it could signal a future intention to nurture and educate the child at home.

It is not purely by chance that Frances Benjamin Johnston’s photograph, Sophia’s Dairy, Harford County, Maryland, showing a double staircase in a seemingly vacant house, appears to dance as though liberated from any architectural rule. It is as though the photographer were channeling Giovanni Battista Piranesi, who’s Imaginary Prisons prints included staircases leading madly in pointless directions.

Frances Benjamin Johnston. Sophia's Dairy, Harford County, Maryland. 1936-1937. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase Fund. BMA 1938.37

Frances Benjamin Johnston. Sophia’s Dairy, Harford County, Maryland. 1936-1937. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchase Fund. BMA 1938.37

A closer look reveals that Johnston has most deliberately chosen the single angle and camera elevation where the ascending stairs, at left, seem parallel to the top 4 stairs, which are in fact at a 90 degree angle to the lower 9 stairs.  This creates a seemingly uninterrupted ascent and obscures the shared landing at the level of the top of the door.  Not only does one have to turn 90 degrees to ascend further, but one has to do so twice in order to reach the second floor.  The turning motif is architecturally expressed through the rolled terminal volute of the bannister; but the true direction of the rising dark bannister is obscured (just where it turns 90 degrees for the first time) through its carefully planned visual intersection with the bottom rail of the second floor bannister.  Johnston’s game is to confuse the eye and liberate the architectural components from their structural duties with joyous irrational effect. Her play is achieved through the manipulation of details.

Imagining Home brings together more than 30 works from across the BMA’s collection to explore the universal theme of home. The exhibition is the result of a collaboration between Director of Interpretation and Public Engagement Gamynne Guillotte and Associate Curator of European Painting & Sculpture Oliver Shell.

 

BMA Voices: The return of Joel Shapiro’s “Untitled”, 1985, to the BMA

Joel Shapiro. Untitled. 1985. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of Ryda and Robert H. Levi, Baltimore, BMA 1987.3. © 2014 Joel Shapiro / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Joel Shapiro. Untitled. 1985. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Purchased as the gift of Ryda and Robert H. Levi, Baltimore, BMA 1987.3. © 2014 Joel Shapiro / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Oliver Shell, Associate Curator of European Painting & Sculpture

I hadn’t really given Joel Shapiro’s work much thought until I was asked to write a label for his sculpture Untitled, 1985, which returned to the BMA this November after a lengthy period of absence due to ice damage. I had only seen the piece in old photographs taken when it stood in the Levi Sculpture Garden, and then in pieces at the Polich Tallix Foundry in Rock Tavern, New York, where the work has been skillfully restored. So for my label I needed to do some research.

Shapiro’s work was influenced by the geometric sculpture associated with Minimal Art of the 1960s and 70s and shares a vocabulary of hard-edged, industrial forms employed by artists such as Carl Andre, Donald Judd, and Robert Morris. Shapiro fundamentally challenged the pure abstraction of Minimalism, however, through the re-introduction of figurative qualities that convey a sense of human vitality. Combining beam-like elements and rectangular box shapes (originally of milled wood and later cast in bronze), Shapiro’s works evoke arms, legs, and torsos. These are often arranged in teetering compositions, as is the case with the BMA’s figure, which appears to be falling backwards like a dancer with a dramatic alignment of one raised and one supporting arm. This expressive tendency became especially pronounced in works like the BMA’s, produced shortly after Shapiro spent time at the American Academy in Rome studying sculpture created by the Baroque master Gian Lorenzo Bernini.

What I have come to admire most in Shapiro’s work is the way he imposed the strictest of limitations on himself, working only with hard-edged right angled units, and yet, by letting the joins and junctures of these elements be angled, a whole universe of possibilities and expressive reconfigurations opened up. Shapiro imbued industrial forms with biological motility and expressive gesture to create a new species of completely hybrid humanoid things. It is hard to limit one’s attention to a single sculpture as his entire body of work becomes an almost infinite series of fascinating relational variations based on a single idea. What you’d think would become stale instead constitutes a creative tour de force.

Now that Untitled, 1985, has returned to the BMA it occupies a very conspicuous spot in the center of a round, elevated, newly constructed island directly in front of the Museum’s reconfigured Zamoiski east entrance.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

Reproduction, including downloading of ARS licensed works is prohibited by copyright laws and international conventions without the express written permission of Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

BMA Voices: A sculptural reminder of the cold war.

Isamu Noguchi. Untitled. 1958. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Alan and Janet Wurtzburger Collection, BMA 1966.55.22. © 2014 The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Isamu Noguchi. Untitled. 1958. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Alan and Janet Wurtzburger Collection, BMA 1966.55.22. © 2014 The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum, New York / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Oliver Shell, Associate Curator of European Painting & Sculpture

Isamu Noguchi’s sculpture Untitled is ideally situated within the fountain of the BMA’s Wurtzburger Sculpture Garden where it creates a visual bridge between the reflective water and the sky. Few, however, know its history prior to coming to the BMA.

Commissioned by the United States government to be installed in a reflecting pool inside the colossal US pavilion at the 1958 Brussels World Exposition, this sculpture is a fascinating artifact of the cold war. Expo 58 was the first international exposition to be held in the atomic era and featured a towering 335 foot, inhabitable, stainless steel model of an iron atom known as the Atomium. The US and Soviet pavilions were provocatively set side by side to present the international public with starkly contrasting displays. Held one year after the launch of the earliest satellite Sputnik (a model of which was featured in the Soviet pavilion) and in the shadow of America’s so called “missile gap,” this Expo became a showcase for a new, sophisticated kind of American cultural politics. Where the Soviets had a gargantuan realist sculpture of Lenin and paintings of him declaiming fiery speeches, the US had a tall, semi-abstract sculpted ear by Alexander Calder that rotated mechanically in the fountain adjoining the pavilion. While this could seem disturbing in the current era of NSA phone hacking, the intention at the time was to underscore the contrast of being talked at versus listened to. The entire approach of the US exhibition has been described as “soft sell” featuring the modern American life-style and relying heavily on art – specifically emphasizing modernist forms and abstraction.

Inside the US pavilion Saul Steinberg created a witty collage mural depicting every-day American scenes. The few surviving installation photographs reveal that the internal reflecting pool was decorated with sculpture by various artists including Mary Callery, and Jose de Rivera. An unidentified water-driven kinetic piece stands in close proximity to Noguchi’s Untitled, the latter relying on light reflecting off of the water to create a constantly fluctuating pattern on the oval structure and the parabolic forms within. This is one of Noguchi’s earliest sculptures made of stainless steel, a material more commonly associated with aviation and military technology but adapted here to purely aesthetic ends. The symbolic message may not have been lost on those attending this cold war Expo.

Mr. Wurtzburger purchased Noguchi’s Untitled directly from the U. S. government in an auction held after the exposition but it was not installed at the BMA until 1980.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

Reproduction, including downloading of ARS licensed works is prohibited by copyright laws and international conventions without the express written permission of Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

BMA Voices: Spending Sunday at Coney Island Beach, New York

Andreas Feininger. Sunday at Coney Island Beach, New York. 1949. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Friends of Art Fund, BMA 1977.86.2. © Andreas Feininger

Andreas Feininger. Sunday at Coney Island Beach, New York. 1949. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Friends of Art Fund, BMA 1977.86.2. © Andreas Feininger/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Oliver Shell, Associate Curator of European Painting & Sculpture

I have never been to Coney Island but I have an image of the place based on Reginald Marsh pictures from the 1930s. Forever populated by buxom women and muscle-bound youths frolicking aggressively, it is a place where Nathan’s Hotdogs (founded there) held annual eating contests, and people visited amusement parks and freak shows. Until I came upon Andreas Feininger’s 1949 photograph, Sunday at Coney Island Beach, New York, I had no sense of how crowded the place might be. The image fascinates me; all those ant-like New Yorkers thronging to the very edge of the continent, launching themselves into the Atlantic Ocean, which many of their parents and grandparents had crossed only a few years earlier. Feininger, himself a refugee fleeing Nazi Germany, had only arrived a decade before. As a skilled photographer he quickly found a job working for Life magazine.

Comparing Feininger’s photograph to a 19th century painting by Alexandre Thiollet (also in the BMA collection, below), a scene depicting a French crowd on a beach, you get a sense of the vast transformation that has occurred in human life: the shift from an agrarian to a mass society. They are worlds apart, Thiollet’s villagers buying fish at low tide, and Feininger’s sweltering multitudes driven from the city by summer heat, entertained, fed and advertised to on an unimaginable scale.

The sense of enormity achieved in this photograph results in part from the use of some modernist strategies. Viewing the masses from an unusually high perspective and cropping the scene below the horizon line causes the individuals near the upper edge of the image to dissolve into a granular haze enhancing a sense of infinite recession. It can also be seen as an attempt to impose an abstract pattern onto his human subjects. Andreas is keenly aware of the large structures of his composition, the repeating horizontal jetties and barriers that push against the shifting diagonals of the boardwalk. Masses photographed from above had already been explored by Italian Rationalist photographers in the 1930s and by the Hungarian photographer László Moholy-Nagy,who in the twenties and thirties taught at the German Bauhaus art school together with Andreas’ father the painter Lyonel Feininger. Moholy-Nagy became the Feininger’s next-door neighbor when the Bauhaus moved to Dessau.

What most draws my attention to this image is the God-like perspective that lets you explore the many mysteries of what we are looking at. In the foreground we can pick out individuals. The boardwalk is astonishingly formal; men wear long pants and women wear dresses well below the knee. The people on the beach are separated and corralled into different enclosures. What are these? The nearest is far emptier than the second which appears madly overcrowded. The near one has almost no sun umbrellas whereas the second one is full of them. Are these different beach clubs, perhaps distinguished economically, or is the beach racially segregated? There seems to be a tension between the conformity of the individuals and the potential frenzy of the clustering mob, an inebriation reinforced by the prominent billboard advertising Seagram’s Seven Crown whiskey. Andreas Feininger’s Coney Island freezes an instant in history that preceded my birth but bears all the veracity of a memory. One is left to wonder how such a spectacular and massive phenomenon, the unique product of a teeming east coast industrial immigrant city, can have vanished.

Alexandre Thiollet. Fish Auction at the Beach of Villerville. n.d.. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The George A. Lucas Collection, purchased with funds from the State of Maryland, Laurence and Stella Bendann Fund, and contributions from individuals, foundations, and corporations throughout the Baltimore community, BMA 1996.45.257

Alexandre Thiollet. Fish Auction at the Beach of Villerville. n.d.. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The George A. Lucas Collection, purchased with funds from the State of Maryland, Laurence and Stella Bendann Fund, and contributions from individuals, foundations, and corporations throughout the Baltimore community, BMA 1996.45.257

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

BMA Voices: Rediscovering a rare David Smith sculpture

David Smith. Head with Cogs for Eyes. 1933. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Ryda and Robert H. Levi Collection, Gift under the Will of Ryda H. Levi, BMA 2009.194. Art © Estate of David Smith/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

David Smith. Head with Cogs for Eyes. 1933. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Ryda and Robert H. Levi Collection, Gift under the Will of Ryda H. Levi, BMA 2009.194. Art © The Estate of David Smith/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Oliver Shell, Associate Curator of European Painting & Sculpture

Late in 2009, the BMA received a remarkable gift from the Estate of Ryda and Robert Levi, the same family whose generosity in the 1980s led to the creation of one of the Museum’s great treasures, the Levi Sculpture Garden. It included eight modern sculptures of the highest quality by artists including Alexander Archipenko, Naum Gabo, Henry Moore, Louise Nevelson, and David Smith.

I started researching these works, in order to present them to the Accessions Committee, beginning with a whimsical sculpture by Smith named, Head with Cogs for Eyes. One of the Levi heirs had alerted me to the fact that the Estate of David Smith listed the work as “Lost” on its website. The Estate tracks the current whereabouts of over 675 sculptures by the artist. I had not yet fully understood the importance of the work when I shot off a quick email to the address listed on the website informing them that the work was no longer lost and that we had just received it as a gift.

Thinking that I would hear back from them in a week or so I was surprised when ten minutes after hitting the send button my phone rang. It was the Susan Cooke from the Smith Estate calling and obviously excited that the work had been located. As I soon discovered, Head with Cogs for Eyes is not just any David Smith. It is one of only four heads that make up the first of Smith’s completely metal sculptures–combinations of forged and found parts that he first produced in 1933. The catalogue of Smith’s earliest retrospective exhibition, held at Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum a year after the artist’s death in 1965, lists Head with Cogs for Eyes prominently as plate number one. I started to understand Cooke’s excitement.

Head with Cogs for Eyes had special significance for Smith; he created a series of photographs of the head, carefully shot from multiple angles, and set against the open sky of the Bolton Landing, New York landscape where he spent most of his later life.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

See also Melanie Harwood’s post on installing Ellsworth Kelly’s Untitled 1986 in the Levi Sculpture Garden.

BMA Voices: An absolute masterpiece of Italian Futurism

Gino Severini. Dancer at Pigalle's. 1912. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of William A. Dickey, Jr., BMA 1957.6. © Gino Severini / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Gino Severini. Dancer at Pigalle’s. 1912. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Gift of William A. Dickey, Jr., BMA 1957.6. © Gino Severini / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris

Oliver Shell, Associate Curator of European Painting & Sculpture

I chose this work because it is an absolute masterpiece of Italian Futurism, painted in 1912, the year in which this movement came onto the international scene with a notorious exhibition held at the Bernheim-Jeune Gallery in Paris.

Gino Severini’s life followed an interesting pathway. He was born in the ancient, Tuscan hill town of Cortona but moved to the bohemian Montmartre district of Paris where he had a studio next to fellow Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani. He befriended Picasso, Braque, Gris and others and became familiar with much of the Parisian avant-garde – eventually marrying Jeanne Fort, daughter of the influential symbolist poet Paul Fort. Through his friendship with the painter Umberto Boccioni he maintained important associations with the Italian Futurist movement (founded in 1909 by the poet F. T. Marinetti). It was Severini who suggested that his Futurist friends visit Paris to look at advanced Cubist art before potentially embarrassing themselves at their opening. We know that Boccioni and Carlo Carrà returned to Italy and quickly repainted their works to look more hard-edged and Cubist.

What differentiated the Futurists was their interest in the concept of simultaneity, the theory that nothing in the universe is static. They believed all perceptions of reality are shaped by the dynamic effects of time, perceivable only through intuition. This concept led Futurist painters to attempt to incorporate a sense of duration in their paintings. In Dancer at Pigalle’s, Severini seeks to capture the essence of a dancer’s movement as she twirls around, her dress spinning out in concentric circles. He builds up the canvas with gesso, literally creating a third dimension, which transforms the piece into a hybrid of painting and sculpture. Sculpture is more temporal than painting as the experience only unfolds as we move around the work. So this is another effort to add an element of duration to the viewer’s experience. Severini also attached sequins to the surface of the painting, collage elements that reinforce the palpable reality of the dancer’s dress. This granular reality contrasts dramatically with the structural decomposition of the interior of the dance hall and of the dancer’s figure– caused it seems by both the figure’s movement and by the powerful electric light. At least four linear beams of light (what the Futurists called “lines of force”) are aimed inward, focused on the dancer. At the same time, her energetic movements radiate outward, making the composition read as both centripetal and centrifugal in its motion.

The BMA has no other Italian Futurist paintings and there are very few venues in America besides MOMA where examples from this broadly influential avant-garde art movement can be seen.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.